Tracking Stress and Depression Back to the Womb (12/04)

By listening intently to movements and heartbeats, researchers are finding that the fetuses of mothers who are stressed or depressed respond differently from those of emotionally healthy women. After birth, studies indicate, these infants have a significantly increased risk of developing learning and behavioral problems, and may themselves be more vulnerable to depression or anxiety as they age. The studies, researchers caution, are preliminary. Stress or depression during a mother’s pregnancy is only one among many influences that affect an infant’s development. Even among mothers who are depressed or highly stressed, the rate of emotional and behavioral problems in children is still very low. “The last thing pregnant women need is to have something else to worry about,” said Dr. Janet DiPietro, a developmental psychologist at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. The studies reflect growing evidence that stress and depression can have early and lasting effects on a child’s life. If the findings hold up, experts say, they could eventually lead obstetricians, midwives and other health professionals who care for pregnant women to include mental health screening as a routine part of prenatal examinations. Such screening could allow doctors to recommend therapy or treatment for pregnant women who suffer from depression or other disorders. “We could be intervening earlier,” said Dr. Catherine Monk, an assistant professor in the psychiatry department at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia. “Prenatal care is an optimal time to do mental health screening, but we don’t.” The effects of stress on a fetus have been well documented in animal studies. In rats, researchers have found, babies born to...